Friday, October 30
James 4:7-17: God never resists the approach of someone who desires to draw nigh unto Him. No sigh of repentance goes unheard. No tear of compunction falls unnoticed. On the contrary, He gives His grace to the humble, and mourning and weeping are the activity of the repentant spirit (verse 9).
This is the repentance proper to the foot of the Cross, described by the poet Sidney Lanier in 1882:
“Tell me, sweet burly-bark’d man-bodied Tree
That mine arms in the dark are embracing, dost know
From what fount are these tears at thy feet which flow?”
In this section James give two practical applications of his teaching about submission to God. This teaching is opposed to two sins by which man attempts to usurp the place of God—first, with respect to other men, and second, with respect to the future. Both other men and the future lie outside our ability to know for certain, and the man who pretends otherwise is attempting to take the place of God.
Man must know his limits, especially his limits about what he can know. Proper epistemology, then, is simply a form of humility. Now there are two things a man cannot know. First, someone else’s heart. Second, the future.
First, true submission to God is incompatible with passing judgment on, or speaking ill of, our brother or neighbor. The one who does so, sins against the Law, the Law here evidently understood as the law of charity. Therefore, the man who maligns his brother brings the Law into disrepute. The person who does this is not a doer of the Law but a judge thereof (verse 1). The one ultimately offended by such behavior is the Lawgiver and Judge, whose place is usurped by the man who passes judgment on his neighbor (verse 2).
This enormous sin of presumption lies totally at variance with James’ counsel to “submit to God” (verse 7). The judging of one’s neighbor is an expression of pride, which God resists (verse 6).
James then goes to a second practical expression of submission to God—namely, reliance on God’s will for the future. Highly presumptuous is the man who imagines himself in control of his future (verses 13-14). His fortunes may change like the air, says James; his life is no more than a vapor.
A proper attitude toward the future prompts a man to treat his plans somewhat hypothetically—namely, with the proviso, “if God wills.” This hypothesis, sometimes called the conditio Jacobaea, places a man’s soul in the correct posture of humility and submission to God (Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7; Philippians 2:19,24; Hebrews 6:3). It means that a man does not make his plans like an atheist (as if God did not exist) or a theist (God neither cares nor interferes). Neither the atheist nor the theist can really “submit to God.”
Saturday, October 31
James 5:1-6: His manifest familiarity with the Old Testament prophets prompts James to dwell on the causal relationship of greed to many and grievous social evils. Indeed at the pen of James the word “wealthy” becomes nearly a synonym for “unjust,” and those thus described are sternly warned and summoned to repentance.
Since it is very difficult to believe that many wealthy people were among those who first heard read this epistle of James (2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28), this section of the epistle is reasonably regarded as a warning to those who are not rich but would prefer to be. Perhaps the latter number for a majority of James’ readers. It seems obvious that more people love wealth than have it. This preference for wealth over poverty, because it is nearly universal, prompted the Apostle Peter to ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)
It is the love of wealth. after all, not the wealth itself, that is spiritually dangerous, and a preference for wealth opens the door to the love of wealth. The very thought of wealth, then, because it is an attractive thought, is already freighted with moral and spiritual peril.
As we observed earlier, James fears that a preference for wealth over poverty is readily translated into a preference for the wealthy over the poor (2:1-4), and this fear is apparently what inspires the harshness with which James speaks here of the wealthy. From the very beginning of this epistle, in fact, James has emphasized the danger of riches (1:9-11). This danger is found everywhere, because a preference for wealth is widespread among men.
So much is this the case that Christians have long regarded the voluntary renunciation of property a kind of “perfection” of the Gospel life (Matthew 19:21), a regard that gave rise to monastic life. Such a renunciation has at least the effect of rendering less likely the fearful judgments to which James refers in these verses.
For James, as for most people, expensive clothing is the clearest sign of wealth and is worn for precisely that reason (verse 2; Isaiah 4:16-26; Acts 12:21; 20:33; Horace, Letters 1.6.40-44). Alas, this interest has not diminished on the earth. Even today James would lament among Christians the same distressing preoccupation with sartorial extravagance, fashion clothing, designer labels, and similar vanity. All these things pertain to worldliness, which is the enemy of God (4:4).
Resources spent on fashion clothing are better conferred on the poor, James indicates, because this conferral will clothe the believer himself against God’s final judgment on man’s social history (verses 4-6).
In the second section (verses 7-12), which follows the reference to the final judgment, James pursues two lines of thought simultaneously, alternating his attention between two themes that have to do with that judgment. One the one hand, there is an exhortation to patience while we await the final judgment, and on the other hand we ourselves are warned with respect to that judgment. James goes back and forth between these two ideas.
In exhorting believers to the exercise of patience, James appeals to two sources of instruction, nature and history. First, with respect to nature, he holds out the example of the farmer, who must steadfastly await the time of harvest. The farmer does not immediately reap the fruits of his labor but must persevere until the Lord provides the fruit, which will not come until the time is ready (verse 7). Similarly the believer must hold fast in the face of persecutions (verses 4-6), as well as the many other difficulties common to human life (verses 12-14,19).
Second, with respect to history, James appeals to the example of the lives of the biblical prophets, among whom he singles out Job, the classical just man who is tried in faith. “We count them blessed [makarizomen],” he says, “who endure [hypomeinantes].” James is resuming here a theme he introduced earlier, the blessedness of the man who is put to the trial: “Blessed [makarios] is the man who endures [hypomenei] temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (1:12). Job appears, then, as James’ example of the “blessed man” who endured.
The second aspect of the final judgment, for James, is that of a salutary warning to Christians themselves, and in this regard he cautions us in two matters.
First, we must be cautious how we treat one another: “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”
Second, we must be cautious how we speak of God. All forms of swearing, for example, must be excluded from the Christian’s vocabulary. God’s name must never be taken lightly and irreverently in our speech: “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”
In both cases, we observe, James appeals to the coming judgment as a motive for circumspection.
Sunday, November 1
2 Chronicles 15: The true significance of the recent battle is explained to Asa and his men by this prophet, Azariah ben Obed, who speaks under the influence of “the Spirit of God” (v. 1). Once again the prophet who speaks to the king is also the spokesman for the Chronicler to us readers. Azariah contrasts the current royal reign with the earlier period, when Israel was “without a teaching priest, and without law” (v. 3). This late victory, he goes on to say, came about in response to the righteousness the Lord had in mind to reward (v. 7).
Three points of the Chronicler’s theology are made in this brief prophetic sermon: First, remember that the Lord is with Israel as long as Israel is with the Lord (v. 2). Second, never forget the lamentable era of the judges, before there were teaching priests (vv. 3–6). Third, recall God’s promise of continued help if Asa continues on this correct path (v. 7). In short, Azariah’s view of history is identical to that of the Chronicler.
Josephus caught the sense of this prophecy: “That the reason they had obtained this victory from God was this, that they had showed themselves righteous and religious men, and had done every thing according to the will of God; that therefore, [Azariah] said, if they persevered therein, God would grant that they should always overcome their enemies, and live happily; but that if they left off his worship, all things shall fall out on the contrary” (Antiquities 8.12.2). This emphasis on the correct worship of God as the secret victory is completely in line with the thinking of the Chronicler.
Asa and his associates, fired up by this short sermon, redoubled their reforming efforts, purging away what remained of the idolatry bequeathed from the era of Rehoboam (v. 8).
Meanwhile, there were new developments in the realm, these having to do with the Northern Kingdom. We earlier learned that northern Levites had fled to the south, to escape the persecution of Jeroboam (11:13–17). Those Levites, the Chronicler now informs us, were not the only ones to flee southward. Indeed, “great numbers” from the north,witnessing the fidelity of Asa and his consequent prosperity, arrived in the south, seeking a life more in conformity to their inherited religious instincts and convictions (v. 9).
These gathered at Jerusalem in 896 BC to solidify their commitment to Asa’s cause (vv. 10–15). This gathering of northerners and southerners around the Davidic king at the temple remained an ideal that inspired the Chronicler. We shall see it again in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah.
Toward the end of this chapter the Chronicler tells a story borrowed from 1?Kings 15:13–14, the account of how Asa deposed his idolatrous grandmother from her special political position as “queen mother” (v. 16).
Finally, at the end of the chapter, inserted as he though were embarrassed by the fact, the Chronicler asserts that even Asa was not entirely successful (v. 17). This remark prepares the reader for the next chapter, in which Asa’s conduct in his old age was not quite up to the mark.
Monday, November 2
James 5:13-20: James speaks of prayer in each of the next six verses (verses 13-18). The link word joining these verses to the preceding section is the verb “to suffer” (kakopathein— literally “to experience evil”—verse 13), which corresponds to the noun kakopathia (verse 9).
A special form of prayer is that offered by the presbyters off the Church when they anoint the sick in the Lord’s name (verse 14; Mark 6:13). These “presbyters,” from whose name we derive the English word “priests,” were the pastors of the local congregations (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17,19). Prayer for the sick is a Christian practice inherited from Judaism (Sirach 38:9-10). The reference to the sacramental rite of anointing indicates that it is distinct from the charismatic gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9,28,30).
The sacramental rite of healing, inasmuch as it also heals from sins, introduces the subject of the confession of sins (verses 15-16). It is instructive to observe that this text, which is perhaps the New Testament’s clearest reference to auricular confession, is placed in the context of the ministry of local pastors. Like the Old Testament priests, who were obliged to hear confessions in order to offer the appropriate sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:7), the pastors of the New Testament are also to be “father confessors,” who absolve from sins on behalf of the Church (John 20:22-23; Matthew 9:8).
As James invoked Abraham and Rahab as exemplars of good works (2:21-25), and Job as a model of patience (5:11), so now he appeals to Elijah as a person to be emulated with respect to prayer (verses 17-18; 1 Kings 17:1,7; 18:1,41-45; Sirach 48:2-3).
The author’s recent reference to the forgiveness of sins (verses 15-16) prompts him finally to speak of the conversion of sinners. No greater favor can we do for a man than to bring him back to the path of conversion (verses 19-20).
The epistle thus ends abruptly.
Tuesday, November 3
Psalms 61 and 62: Here are two psalms about drawing near and holding on.
Combining petition and confidence, Psalm 61 (Greek and Latin) is one of the simplest and easiest prayers of the entire Psalter.
“Hear my petition, O God,” we begin, “attend to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I called out to you, when my heart was anxious.” Already is introduced here the first part of a contrast between “far” and “near.” In anxiety of heart we cry out to God “from the ends of the earth,” but by the very act of doing so we then find ourselves saying: “I will abide in Your temple forever; I will be protected in the shadow of Your wings.”
The movement from “far” to “near,” which is the whole business of prayer, is a great deal more than a mere psychological experience. It has to do, rather, with the mystery of redemption: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). It is not a matter here of our “feeling far off.” Our feelings on the point are futile and unreliable. It is not a feeling but a fact that without Christ, we are far off, and the anxiety of heart, mentioned here as characteristic of our being far from God, is well founded: “At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Now classical paganism did think of itself as hopeful. Even when Pandora opened the jar and released the many plagues that beset the human race, wrote Hesiod, “hope alone yet remained . . . by the will of Zeus the aegis-bearer.” This, said Pindar, is the “hope that principally governs the fickle mind of mortals,” and Aristophanes spoke of “the great hopes stirred within us by longing.” Rome had several temples dedicated to the goddess Hope, and its citizens celebrated her annual feast on August 1. As far as paganism could tell, there was every reason for continuing to hope. A certain healthy kind of hope, after all, is built into the very structure of the rational mind, and the saner sort of paganism, especially on the northern rim of the Mediterranean, paid that hope its proper heed.
Yet, in that text from Ephesians cited above, the Apostle Paul, unwilling to accept paganism’s own assessment of its expectations, described those outside of Christ as “having no hope.” Whatever classical paganism thought of itself, its prospects were really quite hopeless. Having been “brought near by the blood of Christ,” the Christian is keenly aware that such a drawing near is quite beyond his natural ability even to hope.
Our true hope is founded, then, not in the native aspirations of the human spirit but in the redemption wrought by the God to whom we say in our psalm: “For You have become my hope.” Our Christian hope is described as “a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (Heb. 7:19), and of the man who has this hope our psalm says: “He will live forever in the presence of God.”
Our drawing near to God in prayer is based on His drawing near to us in Christ, who is the one place where God and man meet: “having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart” (Heb. 10:21, 22). No prayer goes to God except through Christ. It is Christ who gives both foundation and form to our “drawing near” to God, for “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1, 2). In Christ is “the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil” (Heb. 6:18, 19).
Christ is the King, likewise, of whom this psalm says that He “will live forever in the presence of God.” Indeed, this King has entered once into the Holy of holies, now to make intercession on our behalf and “whose years,” our psalm says again, “will endure from generation to generation.”
In one of the more tender sentiments of the Psalter, using an image that appears likewise in Psalms 16 and 90, this psalm tells God: “I will be protected in the shadow of Your wings.” This is indeed “the inheritance of those who fear Your name.” We finish on the resolve of praise: “So I will sing to Your name forever and ever, and pay my devotion day by day.”
Whereas Psalm 61 (Greek and Latin 60) is concerned with drawing near to God in hope, Psalm 62 (Greek and Latin 61) is about clinging to God in patience. The address of the psalm goes in a variety of directions—we muse within ourselves, we address our enemies, we speak directly to God, we address one another. This is a psalm supremely useful for settling one’s soul quietly in the presence of God.
“Shall not my soul,” we ask, “be subject to God? because from Him comes my salvation. For He is my God and my salvation. He is my protector, and I shall be disturbed no more.”
Salvation in this psalm, as frequently in the Bible, is something for which we wait in patience. In the grammar of Holy Scripture, salvation is very often spoken of in the future tense: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13 [also 10:9]). From heaven we “eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20), “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
This future perspective of salvation is especially true of the Epistle to the Romans: “Much more, then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (5:9, 10). The Apostle quotes Isaiah to the effect that “the remnant will be saved” (9:27), and he hopes that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). Indeed, “our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (13:11). Even when Romans speaks of salvation in a past tense, it is still a matter of hope for the future: “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope” (8:24).
This future perspective of salvation is certainly the one that dominates in the Psalms, where we are forever telling God such things as: “I will rejoice in Your salvation. . . . I have longed for Your salvation. . . . I hope for Your salvation. . . . My soul faints for Your salvation. . . . Let Your salvation come to me according to Your word. . . . My mouth shall proclaim Your salvation. . . .” and so on. This is also certainly the tone of our present psalm.
Awaiting God’s salvation, the believer muses within himself: “Be subject to God, my soul, because from Him comes my patience. He is my God and my savior. He is my protector, and I will not wander. On God depends my salvation and my glory. He is the God of my help, and my hope is in God.” The Epistle to the Romans, once again, provides the best commentary: “But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (8:25). In Israel’s darkest moment Jeremiah wrote: “It is good that one should hope and wait quietly / For the salvation of the Lord” (Lam. 3:26).
The life of faith is pretty much evenly divided between serving and waiting. (It is curious that we still call those who serve us “waiters.”) As we read in today’s epistle (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10), these are the two activities of faith—“to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven.” The life of prayer in particular involves a great deal of waiting, while attempting to calm our souls in the presence of God. This is the exhortation of our psalm: “Hope in Him, every gathering of the People. Pour out your hearts before Him, for God is our help.”
To this quiet waiting in the presence of God is contrasted the busy agitation of life without God, filled with vanity, dishonesty, lying, cheating, hypocrisy, cursing. In all these lines one recognizes themes from the Bible’s wisdom literature. In accord therewith the servants of God are told that, even if from a worldly perspective things are going well, they must be careful not to lose the custody of their hearts: “If wealth increases, do not set your heart upon it.”
In the final analysis, God has had only one message to the race of men (“God spoke but once”), containing a twofold truth. First, that power and mercy belong to God, and second, that He will render to each man according to his works. Yes, works. According to Romans, even while he awaits the salvation of God, the believer is supposed to continue working, “not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints” (12:11–13).
Wednesday, November 4
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12: Paul continues to speak of his own conscience in the Holy Spirit–"… we speak, not as pleasing men, but God, who tests our hearts. . . . God is witness" (verses 4-5). Paul's behavior was, in fact, being challenged by his opponents. He was being likened to other itinerant preachers who made their living by spreading new and interesting ideas.
Such itinerant preachers were much common in the ancient world. One such group was the cynics, criticized by Dio Chrysostom (AD 40-112, and therefore somewhat contemporary with Paul) for their "error, impurity, and deception." All of these charges were directed at Paul himself (verses 3-6). Dio Chrysostom goes on to say that a true philosopher should be "gentle as a nurse." This is exactly how Paul describes himself (verse 7). In addition, Paul appeals to the memory of the Thessalonians themselves with respect to his recent ministry in their city (verses 1,2,5,9,10).
The Thessalonians could be witness of Paul only up to a point, however. The real Paul they could not see. Inside Paul was the plerophoria effected by the Holy Spirit. This was his "complete assurance," known only to God, so it is to God Himself that Paul appealed as the Judge of his conscience, no matter what others might think of him.
The idea of living under God's scrutiny was important to Paul's psychology. He was persuaded that a man was not defiled by what entered him from without, but only by what came from inside, from the heart (cf. Mark 7:14-23). The Apostle rather frequently appeals to God's inner witnessing (2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9). His mentality seems dominated by the awareness of God's inner judgment over him.
Thursday, November 5
1 Thessalonians 2:13-20: Paul did not preach his own word (verse 13). He contended, in fact, that the Apostles themselves were relatively unimportant (1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and he insisted that the Gospel was not his to change (Galatians 1:6-9).
The Gospel means "good news," but not "news" in the same way that the newspaper gives news. It does not simply give a "news flash" about God. On the contrary, the Gospel does something in those that receive it in faith (verse 13; Romans 1:16; Ephesians 6:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25; Hebrews 4:13; John 17:17).
In describing the Gospel as "God's Word," Paul and the other New Testament writers were adapting the expression "the Word of the Lord" from Israel's prophets. Of the 241 times that this expression appears in the Hebrew Bible, it refers to prophetic oracles 221 times.
Like the prophetic oracles that were called "the Word of the Lord," the Gospel was not preached in order to convey an idea but to get results (1 Kings 17:1; Deuteronomy 8:3; Isaiah 55:10-11), to affect history (Jeremiah 5:14; 23:29; Ezekiel 11:13). God's Word proclaimed in the new dispensation of grace should not be weaker than God's word spoken in
the Old Testament. Hence, Paul thought it important to distinguish man's word from God's.
Friday, November 6
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs "strengthen" and "encourage" (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) are used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).
Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in "will and testament"). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).
In the present text Paul relates this "strengthening" to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: "The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other."
According to Paul's thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God's "fellow laborer," because he is doing God's work This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.
We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.